As Christmastime surprises go, this one doesn't rank at the top of Sean Murray's list. But late last year, just as the Hello Games co-founder was riding a wave of tremendous success with the U.K. studio he helped build, that wave crested and crashed.
The storms came to Guildford late last December. The town of 74,000 is located about 25 miles southwest of London. It hugs the River Wey, a tributary to the River Thames, and Hello Games headquarters sits about 250 feet from its banks. When the storm clouds blanketed Guildford last Christmas, they wrung out more than the river could bear.
On Christmas Eve 2013, Murray stood in the studio's office, ankle deep in water. On the other side of the room was a MacBook he'd left on the floor when he departed for the Christmas break. Only now, it wasn't on the floor. It was floating across the room.
It had been a banner year for the Joe Danger developer. But on Christmas Eve, as Sean Murray watched a MacBook float, things had taken a natural disaster's turn for the worse.
JANUARY - EARLY DECEMBER 2013
Things had been going so well.
On Jan. 10, 2013, the small indie developer brought Joe Danger to iOS. At the time, Murray thought this was the end for the cartoonish stuntman, but the game's mobile success invigorated the franchise. Joe Danger Touch was not his last stunt.
By June, Hello Games brought the franchise's first two games to Steam. In August, Joe Danger was announced for PlayStation Vita. September brought the announcement of the franchise's first retail release. In the following months, Hello Games announced Linux and Mac ports of the Steam version and Joe Danger Infinity, an entirely new mobile entry in the series.
Business, as they say, was booming at Hello Games, and the developers weren't done. They had more to show. The only problem was that they been led to believe that it might sink like a led weight.
DEC. 6, 2013
Sean Murray was on a plane headed to San Francisco, and he was nervous.
He and three other developers from Hello Games were crossing the ocean with something new to talk about. It was something entirely different than what the studio was known for. Something they'd spent countless hours working on in secret. It was also something that, if eight of the 10 developer friends they'd shown it to could be believed, was difficult to explain or understand.
Just before the flight, they'd shown it to press in the U.K. Its debut was such an awkward experience that it shocked the developers into an 11-hour silence.
"Pretty much, the four of us sat in a row on the plane, and we didn't talk," Murray told Polygon. "We didn't in the taxi. We didn't talk in the airport. We didn't talk on the plane. We got to the hotel, said goodnight to each other. We were so nervous."
They were so worried that they considered pulling the debut. Hello Games' 2013 bubble felt like it was ready to burst.
DEC. 7, 2013
The Spike VGX event was in full swing. Geoff Keighley and Joel McHale were at the helm. The rebranded Video Game Awards had been refocused to spotlight new games as much as to honor 2013's best, and it was drawing more than 1.1 million viewers.
All of the big names were there. Bungie showed Destiny. Crystal Dynamics announced that Tomb Raider was headed to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Respawn Entertainment showed off Titanfall.
About two hours into the three-hour event, a surprise. A world premiere trailer for No Man's Sky, a procedurally generated space exploration simulator in which every rock, sea, fish, mountain, planet and solar system had been created by the game's engine. The trailer ended. On a couch next to Keighley and McHale sat Sean Murray, who'd crossed an ocean with the trailer he played and edited.
No Man's Sky was the talk of the show. Their friends were wrong. Things for Hello Games were going incredibly well again.
DEC. 24, 2013
Blame the underground parking lot next door.
When he got the text from his neighbor with the news that his building was flooding, Murray didn't think things were going to be too bad. But he still rushed down to see what was happening.
Panic set in when he arrived.
Most days, Hello Games HQ is occupied by employees, friends and families.
"Literally, there's always somebody in this office," Murray said of the space they built from scratch out of an abandoned warehouse. "That's not necessarily just working. It's a space that we kind of hang out in. We'll play board games here on a Friday night, things like that."
Not so that Tuesday in December. It was Christmas Eve, an exception to the rule. People were home celebrating. "The place was empty," he said.
And water was rising.
He knew the storms were to blame. He knew the River Wey couldn't contain itself. What Murray didn't know when he arrived and started moving things like waterlogged computer towers from the floor onto desks was that the parking lot next door was filling with water like a gigantic bucket near to overflowing. Things were about to get much worse.
"I guess you don't expect that suddenly, the desks are going to be underwater," he said.
Inside Hello Games' office, within 15 minutes of his arrival, the water had risen from his ankles to his waist. But it didn't happen like you might imagine. Murray kept expecting the water to rush in through the doors, but it had other plans. It seeped in quite literally through the walls. You can't scoop it out, and you can't close it off with a door. You don't see it happening, and you can't stop it.
Forget moving things higher. The rules were changing faster than he could learn them. Drains were backing up. Water rushed in through the windows. Desk drawers opened, spilling their precious cargo. Business papers and books were floating by.
"It was sudden," he said. "It was a horrible thing for people who were away to know that their stuff — not just their work and their machines and things like that — but their personal stuff [was there]. Grant [Duncan], our artist, he would just have things that you can't really back up, you can't necessarily store it safely, maybe. Just years of concept art. Things like that. You walk in, and it's all just floating on this horrible river water."
Then, in the midst of chaos and action, surreality.
"There is that moment of realization," he said. "This is what it's like. I've seen pictures before of flooding on TV, of people stuck in storms and stuff like that. And you're like, 'Oh, right. This is what it's like, and it's horrible.'"
Others had gotten the word and made their way to the office to help in whatever way they could. At that point, they had enough manpower to move things into cars, except that the cars were being flooded, too.
There's panic, and then there's a plan, and then there's resignation to reality.
"You're just trying to find a way out of it," he said. "But actually there isn't that much that you can do. Really, you are pretty helpless."
They stuck around at ground zero until sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. before they decided that their presence was "detracting from people who really needed help." After all, it wasn't just a single office flooding. There were other offices. There were homes. There were firemen and rescue services trying to help.
Among those gathered was Grant Duncan, Hello Game's sole artist whose irreplaceable work was floating away. At some point during the night of the flood, Murray remembers him saying something that, when you hear him tell the story of the flood and its aftermath, typifies Hello Games' spirit.
"Well, I guess we don't have to water the plants," Duncan said.
DEC. 25, 2013
The office had "a pretty horrible smell" on Christmas morning, but the quick-moving river water was gone, and Hello Games assembled to start cleaning up.
They gathered what they could and tried to salvage some things. They picked out damp cigarette butts, leafs and sticks that flood left them around and on and in everything like calling cards.
Some things survived, as if by a miracle. A MacBook (but not the floating one) still lives. TVs are a loss. A computer powered up but died a day later. Most things, in general, were a write-off.
"You end up having loads of personal stuff there as well," he said. "It's just how it is. It sounds really stupid, and you beat yourself up about it afterwards, like, 'Why did I bring that to work? Why did I leave that there for Christmas?' But that's just how it is."
You can back up a computer file, but it's the things that filled the office that's almost always occupied, except on Christmas Eve, that kept tugging at Sean Murray in the wake of the flood, even though he knew it sounded "small and petty." He discovered on Christmas morning that many of those things — some of which also entered his life on Christmas mornings past — were a loss, too.
"We had a little games room," he said. "It's just a small alcove. We had a TV in there. Basically, I brought in my console collection. I had, like, every console I've ever owned. I kind of collect them, and I had all the games and the all the weird controllers and peripherals and stuff like that. I brought them all in and set them up on the TV. They're all gone.
"Which is fine. I hardly ever played them, right? You think, 'Why am I upset by it?' but it's just one of those things. You form this attachment. You're like, 'That was the first SNES I ever owned!' Because you remember getting it for Christmas when you were a kid.
"And it doesn't matter. You can buy a SNES off of eBay. It's stupid to get sentimental about stuff like that, but it's a natural thing, isn't it?"
JANUARY AND FEBRUARY 2014
Hello Games saved what it could and then got back to work.
There were backups, and those allowed Hello Games to get back to work on Joe Danger Infinity and No Man's Sky.
"You wouldn't be talking to me right now, and I certainly wouldn't be talking about coming out of it stronger if we didn't have backups," Murray told Polygon in January.
Murray was heartened at the outpouring of support from fans, from neighbors who offered space and PCs. Everyone was "really supportive as a group," he said.
He's quick to point out that they were among the lucky ones, too. "Loads of England got flooded," he said. The team from Hello Games had homes to return to. Many did not.
At times, part of him wanted to be depressed. Part of him wanted to wallow in the sorrow. At times, felt like blaming himself, "even though it doesn't make any sense." But if they were the lucky ones, then they had something of a responsibility. So Sean Murray and Hello Games made a choice to do something different: to appreciate what they have and get back to work.
"It's hard to describe, but the only thing that you can do — you feel really helpless," he said. "And the only thing you can do is just try to waste as little time as possible and pour everything you've got into getting back up and running.
"You have to — this sounds ridiculous, this sounds really cheesy — but otherwise, it's won in some way. You're like, 'This situation has gotten the better of me somehow.' And you just want to fight it."
Hello Games is, in Sean Murray's words, "a pretty stoic group." The plan was always to buy new machines rebuild the office — to do it together, just like they did before.
Hello Games started again, not long after the flood, in a small office nearby, where one of the two rooms they had they occupied was filled floor to ceiling with potentially salvageable parts. But that temporary housing had no noticeable effect on the studio's output.
Joe Danger Infinity launched in January. That freed up two artists to join the No Man's Sky Team. When Joe Danger and Joe Danger 2 also launched on Linux and Mac the month after the flood, that brought Ryan Doyle to the team. The quartet that created No Man's Sky in 2013 and traversed the ocean to unveil the game in December has nearly doubled.
In the last week of February 2014, Hello Games returned to its old stomping grounds.
"We've got all new furniture, machines, everything — and we've taken the opportunity to make it much nicer than it was before," he said. "It feels like we've created a little nest, now we have to just deliver this game. No distractions. We've advertised some roles, we want to make sure we have like the perfect team, then that's it, heads down until it's ready."
Work continues on No Man's Sky.
"People think we spent a year making a trailer," he said, "but actually we spent a year making a set of tools and an engine that is procedural right at its very core. It's such a different way of working, and I don't think it's been done before. We're at a point where Grant makes a creature prototype, or Aaron makes a spaceship blueprint, then clicks a button and it creates hundreds of thousands of variants. Just this massive grid of every possible permutation of shape, size, texture, color. Every Friday we have this big review, and it's sort of overwhelming. The game frequently scares me."
At the end of each week, Hello Games kicks back with a cartoonish stuntman because work continues on him, too.
"Joe Danger Infinity is still in development for instance," he said, "with a new update due really soon that includes a brand new mode, Daily Challenges, which comes with a set of new levels."
Hello Games also continues its work with Four Door Lemon on the upcoming PS Vita releases of Joe Danger and Joe Danger 2.
Now in March, months after the flood, Sean Murray has the benefit of hindsight that allows him to look back at the disaster and forward to the future differently than he otherwise might have.
"For the last year there have been four of us working in a locked room, creating No Man's Sky," he said. "Actually the flood brought us all together, forced us back into a cramped little room — the whole team. It's been really positive, and it's felt like the right time for us to have more people help make this insanely ambitious game."
In fact, you could hear the seeds of that optimism in January, too, less than a month after the flood. In a strange way, the temporary office also bore a striking resemblance to the abandoned warehouse they bought on the cheap and remodeled for themselves years ago. Hello Games knows a wreck. And it knows what to do with one, too.
"It's really heartening," Sean Murray said. "You just feel like this group of people is unstoppable. You can't stop us. There's a great camaraderie in that."